Can't read, can't write, no job: rural poor struggle in big cities

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 May, 2007, 12:00am

The block of small, make-shift bungalows in Shangdi, northwestern Beijing, is one of dozens of notorious shanty towns for migrant people working in the capital.

The areas are home to rural labourers who have trickled into the city in search of a better life but often end up languishing in poverty because they do not have a basic education.

As a result, the towns are also the epicentres of a growing population of illiterate people struggling to improve their living standards in an increasingly skills-based society.

Niu Xiangdong , a 37-year old woman from rural Chaohu in Anhui province , has been living in a one-bedroom house in the Shangdi neighbourhood for several years, staying home full-time to take care of her two school-age children.

Apart from doing routine household chores, Ms Niu occasionally roams the street scavenging scrap for some extra money to add to the 700 yuan her husband brings home each month as a bicycle mechanic.

'If it were not for the sake of my kids, I could find a cleaner's job, but the pay would be far from enough to cover school meals and after-school care,' she said.

The mother of two says she has not received any training since leaving school in her home town more than 20 years ago and admits that although she can write her name, her vocabulary is limited. Her life revolves around her two children and she hardly goes out by herself because she cannot read a map.

About 20km south, in a nondescript residential block in central Beijing, 24-year old Zhang Zhongxiao , from Lixian county in Gansu province , lives in a cramped basement while she looks for a job.

Ms Zhang dropped out of school in Grade Six after her mother became seriously ill. She had to work in the fields while doing family chores before moving to Beijing 18 months ago to work as a house maid.

Ms Zhang, who looks younger than her age, eagerly writes out the few complex words she knows but becomes silent when asked if she can read and write 1,500 characters, the adult literacy minimum.

Both women are members of an emerging illiterate population that has evolved in major cities such as Beijing, according to Xu Rong , a division head at the non-government Beijing Cultural Development Centre for Rural Women.

Ms Xu said that, unlike illiterate people in the early 1950s, most illiterate people today had some sort of schooling, but that did not mean they could read and write properly.

She said her organisation - which works closely with rural women in Guizhou and Ningxia and migrant women's groups in Beijing to raise literacy - found that many women migrants working in the capital had difficulty filling out simple forms or even writing receipts for customers.

'Some of my friends have asked me why we take the pains to go to Gansu and Guizhou to eradicate illiteracy when there is plenty in our neighbourhood,' Ms Xu said.

There has been little research into the illiteracy rate among mainland migrants, but mainland media, citing a Ministry of Education official, have reported that the geographical distribution of the illiterate population on the mainland is shifting towards the relatively affluent central and eastern regions as a result of a rural diaspora.

For example, Shandong province , one of the most developed regions, registered 9 million illiterate people by the end of 2005.

Nationwide, the number of illiterate people reached 116 million by the end of 2005, 30 million more than at the end of 2000.

Ethnic minority groups and people living in far-flung rural areas, particularly women, still make up the majority with the lowest literacy levels.

With much fanfare, the central government announced in 2001 that it had eradicated illiteracy among the 15 to 50 age group and it then abolished many grass-roots agencies working with illiterate people. The government has also cut spending since then.

According to the mainland media, the government spends only 8 million yuan each year, a meagre 7 fen per person, on illiteracy eradication.

Now the sharp rise in people who cannot read or write is a major embarrassment to authorities who have been single-mindedly pursuing economic growth at the expense of other aspects of social development, including literacy.

The rising number of illiterate people also means that the mainland could fail a 2005 pledge to cut its illiterate population by half by the end of 2015.

A UN report last year identified China as one of 12 countries in the world that still had a large pool of illiterate people.

Chinese Women's University associate professor Zhang Jian, who is a member of a special national experts' committee on eradicating illiteracy, said the government definitely needed to play a bigger role in literacy and numeracy education.

However, Professor Zhang said that illiteracy would be extremely difficult to eradicate on the mainland. She said that in some underdeveloped rural areas more than 90 per cent of the children went to school under the free-for-all basic education pushed by the central government, 'but class drop-outs are becoming a problem'.

And about 86 per cent of the 30 million newly reported illiterate population are aged between 15 and 50, suggesting that compulsory education is not working.

'If we do not try to tackle [illiteracy] at its root, illiteracy eradication work will never be finished,' Professor Zhang warned.

Echoing her concern, the rural women's centre's Ms Xu said motivation among the rural population for literacy studies and basic schooling was lower than it was decades ago.

The centre runs classes for illiterate women in Guizhou and 'one third of the students disappear halfway through and some classes end up half empty', Ms Xu added.

The National Bureau of Statistics reported that an additional 7.55 million rural workers left their home towns to work in the cities in 2005, pushing the number of migrant workers on the mainland to 125.78 million by the end of that year.

A research fellow with China National Institute for Education Research, Guo Hongxia , questions approaches towards illiteracy eradication and blames them for the rising number of illiterate people on the mainland because 'these people can hardly put what they have learnt into practical use'.

Tough lessons

Critics say the mainland is not spending enough fighting illiteracy among migrant workers

The number of mainlanders who were illiterate at the end of 2005 116m